There are a few, a lucky few, folks who were born on the family farm, grew up on the family farm, learned how to run the family farm, and have no doubt about where they will live and what they will do—they will continue the family farm.
For the rest of us, the road to our homestead is not usually so direct. Fraught with detours, dead ends, and missing road signs, sometimes it takes years to get there, and once there, sometimes, like the dream where you think you are at the bottom, but you just keep falling, our final destination remains elusive.
Perhaps your earliest memories include fantasies of ponies, hen houses, and amber waves of grain, or maybe, in an otherwise normal adulthood, one day pushing pencils in your cubicle you were seized with the overwhelming urge to leap out the window and go plant something. Outside. In the dirt. And the sunshine. And never be “cubed” again.
No matter—the result is the same: the need and desire to claim a bit of earth, raise a barn, fill it with food-on-the-hoof nourished by grass-in-the-pasture, and earn your keep by the sweat of your brow, darn it.
‘Tis a worthy goal, and like all worthy goals, there must be a worthy plan—a neat and well thought out plan that takes you from point A, to point B and all the way to point Q, which is right about where your farm sits, a perfect jewel set into the warm bosom of a blissful countryside.
Point A is deceptively easy. It consists of “I wanna be a homesteader.”
Point B is substantially more involved, and quite a bit more lengthy, but generally fun and relatively inexpensive and painless. This is where all the preliminary learning is done. Your collection of magazines, books, bookmarked websites, and business cards will amaze even yourself in an alarmingly short time. New words and phrases will roll off your tongue leaving your ears wondering, “Who said that?” Sustainability, Grass-fed Beef, and Nitrogen Fixing Cover Crops—these and other, until now, odd combinations of words will dance through your head at night like visions of sugarplums.
The whole concept seems so right. Caring for the earth while caring for your family, dying a noble peaceful death, and being cared for, in turn, by the earth, like our ancestors did for generation upon generation. Shunning the mainstream belief of the nine to five followed by the 401k, we voraciously devour every tale telling how others have accomplished this modern day return to a basic and good life.
And one shining truth shimmers through each family story according to the published word: simply follow your plan (or THEIR plan, if they are selling a book), and the end result will be your homestead. Happy smiling family waving from a tractor on the last page. The End.
For most of us, this couldn’t be a crueler fallacy.
Because somewhere after Point B, life gets in the way. People lose jobs, they lose spouses, they gain a child or responsibility of a parent or grandparent, there’s a chronic illness or debilitating injury tossed into the mix and the lovely plan is in shatters, tatters, and shreds.
This is where we separate the wheat from the chaff, the rice from the hulls, the peanuts from the butter. At this juncture, some people will decide that the homesteading dream is just that—a pretty dream, like the one where Antonio Banderas rides up on a black stallion, swoops you off your feet, hands you a perfectly frozen Dove bar (not too hard, but not dripping and mooshy either), and gallops off to sunny Mexico with you to the perfect beach with sand that will never get into your ice cream…
The “homesteading as a pretty dream” group will buck up, re-group and move on.
The others… Ah, the others. Every fragment of a thought inferring that they will never have their piece of earth will result in the sound of a tiny piece of their heart breaking.
This story is for you, my friends.
There is ALWAYS something you can do that will move you in the right direction, and just because you APPEAR to be moving backward, does not mean that you must STAY moving backward.
Although the causes of Homestead Dream Endangerment are many, the results are basically the same few depression inducing scenarios:
Homestead Dream Endangerment Scenario One: Stuck in the City—No Money to Get Out.
This one is the hardest because it’s like you are smacked down even before you get started. In actuality, this is where you can hone skills before you need them. Go to the farmers’ market, buy a bunch of veggies and fruits and teach yourself to freeze, dehydrate and can. Learn to bake bread. Find and take classes on sewing, knitting, woodworking, basic carpentry, electrical, and plumbing, heck even car repair (tractors have engines—who knew?).
If you only have a yard, you can have a garden; plant veggies in between your flowers, veggies are plants, too. If you have only a balcony, you can have a few pots with tomato and pepper plants in them, and smaller pots with herbs around them. If you have oregano, basil, and cilantro, you have spaghetti sauce and salsa. What more could you want?
Volunteering and visiting working farms is a good way to figure out for sure and for certain what you like and what you hate about different aspects of farming, and is more helpful to be done BEFORE you leap in with both rubber boots on. The fact that your elaborate and brilliant plan to raise heritage Widget Sheep is going to be more difficult than you imagined because you have a previously unknown allergy to lanolin, is something better learned early on.
Of course, all this is done in your “spare time”, while trimming your budget and working overtime to truly be able to escape the city once you find your property. Which brings us to:
Homestead Dream Endangerment Scenario Two: Land Land Everywhere, But Not a Farm in Sight.
Tiny, sweat-covered down payment in hand, it’s time to find your land and stake your claim to it. Even if you know where you want to settle, it’s hard enough. Even in the flattest part of the world, the difference between parcels of land is astounding. If you are considering moving somewhere you’ve never been before, it’s mind-boggling.
The first 100 or so parcels that you look at will be fun and educational. After that it just gets tediously bizarre, like that old Dunkin Donuts commercial where the baker sleepwalks to work every morning at 3:00 AM chanting “Time to make the donuts. Time to make the donuts…”, you will drive down little back roads, map in hand droning “Gotta find the land. Gotta find the land…”
This is the danger zone—and you must remember three key words—Do Not Settle. No matter what, wait ’til you step onto the piece of land that whispers to your soul that you will make a happy home and farm there, regardless of any apparent limitations it may have. Of course this is taking for granted that you will automatically pass on any land that includes a toxic waste dump, has no source of water, or that swarms with werewolves every full moon. Once you’ve found your land, you must make it yours, which usually involves jumping through hoops for men in suits and:
Homestead Dream Endangerment Scenario Three: Banks Only Lend Money to Those Who Don’t Need It.
A lot of us are credit challenged, and most of us are not, despite what our Credit Score screams, deadbeats. Job loss, sickness, divorce—any number of things can launch the most conscientious person straight out of the mainstream financial institutions for a mortgage. Several factors make this worse. For instance, if you are relocating across country there will be no local references for employment or residence. This makes bankers nervous. And if the land in question is no-barn-no-house nekkid, they will really start twitching.
Historically, they have a point. If something in your life gets tough and you need to pick and choose what and who gets paid, you will keep your house that you live in current. You will keep your vehicle that you need to get to work current. Banks assume that if the going gets tough, you will start skipping your land note, and they are usually right. Even though bankers enjoy being right, they dislike foreclosing on properties—a lot of paperwork and court orders and sheriffs involved there and they’d just as soon avoid it, so they don’t make the loans to begin with.
The options are to either cough up enough of a down payment to make it worth their while (and simultaneously gag on a killer interest rate), or find someone to owner-carry, at least till you can get some stability established. Once the bank has a record of a year or so of timely made payments, and knows you are not going to leave them holding a partially improved farm, they will generally consider re-writing your note at a more attractive rate. If you do go owner-carry, make sure ANY owner-carry note is drawn up by a lawyer to avoid “misunderstandings” down the line.
When you have closed on the land and have moved out yonder, a lot of folks are faced with:
Homestead Dream Endangerment Scenario Four: Well, Here We Are, But Now We Can’t Afford to Do a Dang Thing.
Resist the temptations of mental, physical, or financial over-extension.
Or sure as shootin’ you will find yourself smack dab in the middle of:
Homestead Dream Endangerment Scenario Five: How Did We Manage To Lose The Farm?
Of course, there are many routes to this unfortunate spot, and most of them do not have anything to do with your intelligence, money management, or farming savvy. There are many times the excrement contacts the oscillator and you either get angry, or you get over it. If you know in your heart that you have done the best you know how, and in the cases where there WERE misjudgments, you learned from them and are determined not to repeat them. This is not a terminal scenario.
Let’s talk about me for a minute (and I promise Antonio Banderas is not part of this, but I make no such vow about the Dove bars).
I was born and raised up in a mid-sized town in Wisconsin.
Learned everything I could about country life while my first child was a toddler.
Moved out to 3 acres when I was pregnant with my second child.
Got a big garden going, got some dairy goats and horses.
Divorced 7 years later and lost the farm.
Packed the U-Haul and drove to Texas.
Did several years time in the Worst Trailer Park in Texas.
Got divorced, again.
Moved into a “fixer upper” on 3 acres.
Got a garden going, dairy goats, horses, and poultry.
Married again and had another child.
Decided 3 acres was too small, so looked and looked and finally found 12 acres.
Jumped through roughly 10,000 hoops before securing financing.
Started planning a new family farm that centered around building our own home, ourselves.
Family encountered serious health issues.
Farm plan re-worked to include local contractor as a principal character to achieve building goals.
Everyone enjoys a Dove bar.
My story is not that unusual, and certainly does not include insurmountable problems. I can think of at least half a dozen of my friends who have done so much more with seemingly so much less. At some point all of us have wrestled with:
Homestead Dream Endangerment Scenario Six: Am I Too Danged Old to Do This?
If this question enters your mind the answer is “YES”—you ARE too old to do this the same way you planned it in your teens, twenties, and thirties. But if you re-work the labor parts, and lessen the day-to-day workload, you’ll find that homesteading is not out of reach, you just have to shift your definition of a successful farm.
The common thread among us is the bullheadedness to not give up when most sane folks would. Whether that makes us sensible is up for debate. But that really matters not.
Because no matter where we are physically or financially, our hearts and our minds are on the farm, and nothing can take that away from us.
Whether we are growing beans behind the petunias, or canning veggies in a high rise, you can take the homesteader out of the country, but you can never take the country out of the homesteader.